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Royal Gorge Bridge: History & Construction

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

2013 was a dry one for the state of Colorado. That summer, wildfires burned through several thousand acres and hundreds of buildings. One fire nearly claimed one of Colorado's famous tourist attractions, the then ninety year old Royal Gorge Bridge.

Tall Tourism

Known to locals simply as ''The Royal Gorge,'' the bridge is just one part of a 360-acre park. Today's visitors can explore the land, ride in one of the aerial gondolas, or simply walk across the 1,260-foot suspension bridge.

Royal Gorge Bridge
bridge

Bridge Beginnings

Travel through the Royal Gorge has been happening for hundreds of years. The Ute tribes used it for protection, and other tribes used it to access meadow areas during buffalo hunts. Europeans appeared around 1806 during Zebulon Pike's expeditions in the area. Gold discoveries made it necessary for a railroad to be built in the gorge, and the first rail line opened in the 1880s. The rail line ran until the 1960s, and now a sightseeing train, the Royal Gorge Railroad, runs the route.

Postcard Showing the Royal Gorge Train
train

The rail line made it possible for people to see the walls of the gorge. People started thinking, though, what if they could go from one side of the gorge to another? The land around the gorge had been given to the city of Canon City by the federal government, so the land was to be used as a municipal park. People began to discuss the possibility of a bridge across the gorge.

Royal Gorge Bridge and Amusement Company

To build a bridge, though, there had to be someone to build it and someone to pay for it. In 1928, Texan Lon Piper, who'd built bridges before and had financial support, declared he wanted to build a bridge across the gorge. After months of debate and planning, the plans and design were finally approved. Construction began on June 5, 1929. It was quite beneficial for all involved, since it brought jobs to the area as well as future tourism dollars. Piper established the Royal Gorge Bridge and Amusement Company to oversee the construction of the bridge.

Bridge Construction

It was decided that the bridge was to be a suspension bridge. A suspension bridge is constructed with two tall towers and cables running from each tower. More cables are attached to these cables, holding up the deck or traveling surface of the bridge. The towers or columns support most of the weight of the bridge.

The workers had to figure out how to build across the 1,260-foot gap between the two sides of the gorge. They also had to construct the width of the bridge, which ended up being 18 feet wide. The two large cables weigh 200 tons, and are actually 2100 cables bundled together and secured to the two towers. Once the cables were in place, workers had to assemble the deck of the bridge. The 1,292 Oregon fir planks were bolted to the deck. There's no vertical truss on the bridge, which means there's nothing keeping the planks still, so bridge visitors feel the shaking and wobbling movements as they go across. All of this construction was done 956 feet above the Arkansas River in the gorge. Despite being so high above everything, the construction process had been relatively safe, with no one being seriously injured or killed. The bridge was dedicated in December of 1929.

Postcard Showing the Royal Gorge Bridge
bridge

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